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Sri Lankan Government Responds to Attack That Kills 290

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  • A series of eight bombings killed 290 people in Sri Lanka and injured hundreds more.
  • Three of the bombs went off in churches on Easter Sunday.
  • The attacks are believed to have been carried out by a local extremist group called National Thowheeth Jamath, and authorities were warned of the attacks ahead of time, but never alerted the Prime Minister.
  • The government is enforcing a curfew throughout the capital and has also blocked several social media sites to prevent the spread of false information.

What Happened?

A series of eight bombings killed 290 people in Sri Lanka and injured at least 500 others on Easter Sunday.

In the country’s capital, Colombo, four attacks were located at hotels and another was at a housing complex. The remaining three bombings were carried out at churches during Easter mass. The churches were located in Colombo, Batticaloa, and Negombo.

Since the bombings happened on Easter, officials believe it was specifically targeting the Christian community in the country. Christianity is a smaller religion in Sri Lanka. Only 1.5 million of the country’s 21 million people practice it.

While the attacks occurred in popular tourist areas, most of the victims were citizens of Sri Lanka. Right now, authorities say 39 foreigners were killed.

Police believe that all the explosions were carried out by suicide bombers. No group has claimed the attack. However, police say a local extremist group, National Thoweeth Jamath, is behind the attacks. Twenty-four people have been arrested in relation to Sunday’s events so far. Officers have also recovered 87 detonators at a bus station in Colombo.

According to Sri Lanka’s government news site, INTERPOL is being sent to the country to investigate. The country will be in a state of emergency through midnight local time on Monday.

Warnings of Attack Went Ignored

Government officials say that they were alerted of the attacks two weeks in advance. A spokesperson said they received several warnings that specifically cited potential church bombings by NJT, and even listed suspects names.

The warnings were passed through relevant areas of the police department and to security services, but the information never made its way to the Prime Minister or his cabinet. Authorities took no action against NJT, and it is unclear if they took separate precautions to look into or prevent the attack.

Rajitha Senaratne, a government spokesperson, said that they would be looking into the government’s failure to respond.

“We saw the warnings and we saw the details given.” he added during a press conference. “We are very very sorry, as a government we have to say, we have to apologize to the families and the institutions about this incident.”

Authorities said the warnings they received indicated a much smaller attack. NJT is a newer, smaller group known for having anti-Buddhism beliefs. Buddhism is the most popular religion in Sri Lanka, and the group has been linked to incidents of Buddhist statues being vandalized or destroyed. They do not have a reputation for carrying out attacks of this level.  Because of this, officials believe a larger international network must also be behind the attack.

Government Enacts a Curfew And Social Media Ban

In an effort to prevent further attacks, the government enacted a curfew in Colombo. The curfew lasts from 8:00 p.m. to 4:00 a.m. and was enforced on Sunday and Monday. It is unclear if they will continue to apply it in the following days.

The government has also shut down several social media sites following the attack. In a statement posted on the government news site, they said, “false news reports were spreading through social media.” They hope that by banning these platforms, they will stop the spread of misinformation.

The statement said that the sites would be back up after investigations close. They cited that Instagram and Facebook would be specifically blocked, but users in the country have also said they are unable to access messaging apps like WhatsApp and Viber.

Viber released a statement on Twitter sending condolences to the victims of the attacks and warning local residents to read reports with caution.

Some residents are feeling frustrated by the blocks because they want to communicate with friends and family and confirm that they are safe.

One Colombo resident told The Washington Post that her friends from other countries were unable to reach her.

“I have had friends in London trying to contact me through both (WhatsApp and FaceBook),” she said. “And I can’t see them or message anybody.”

International Leaders Respond

As the news was breaking of the tragedy, several world leaders spoke out. President Donald Trump tweeted that the United States is “ready to help!”

French President Emmanuel Macron, whose country recently received global assistance after the iconic Notre Dame cathedral caught fire, reached out to Sri Lanka. He told the country that “all of our solidarity” is with its people.

Pope Frances also gave a statement. “I wish to express my heartfelt closeness to the Christian community [of Sri Lanka],” he said. “Wounded as it was gathered in prayer, and to all the victims of such cruel violence.”

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (The Washington Post) (The Guardian)

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Coronavirus Cases and Deaths Rise

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  • The new coronavirus that originated from Wuhan, China has now killed at least 81 people and more than 2,700 cases have been detected worldwide. 
  • Most of the cases are in China, though low numbers have been found in other nations, including the United States.
  • Wuhan’s mayor has offered to resign in wake of criticism for the Chinese government’s response to the health crisis.
  • The United States, France, and Japan have all announced plans to evacuate their citizens from Wuhan and bring them home on limited-capacity flights.

Rising Numbers

The coronavirus outbreak that began in the Chinese city of Wuhan significantly worsened over the weekend, bringing the death toll to at least 81 and the confirmed number of cases to over 2,700.

The majority of the cases have been found in China, but several have been detected in other nations across four continents, including the United States, Australia, Taiwan, Japan, and France.  

On Sunday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed three newly-detected cases of the novel coronavirus in Southern California and Arizona, bringing the overall number of infected people in the U.S. to five. The other cases were found last week in Washington and Illinois. 

“It is likely there will be more cases reported in the U.S. in the coming days and weeks, likely including person-to-person spread,” the CDC wrote. 

“While this is a serious public health threat, CDC continues to believe the immediate risk to the U.S. general public is low at this time,” it added.

No deaths from the coronavirus have been reported outside of China. 

Chinese Government’s Response 

In efforts to control the outbreak of the novel virus, plans have been made to rapidly build a new hospital and travel bans have been imposed around the nation, affecting millions of people. 

As conditions have worsened, Chinese officials are facing criticism from people saying that their response to the outbreak was too slow.

Zhou Xianwang, Wuhan’s mayor, defended himself in an interview with the state broadcaster CCTV, saying that he had to wait for authorization from Beijing officials before he could make certain critical information public. 

Regardless of this point, Mayor Xianwang also offered to step down from his position and said that he and Ma Guoqiang, the city’s Communist Party secretary, will resign and take the blame if it will appease the public.

Xianwang’s comments were broadcasted the same day Premier Li Keqiang, China’s second-highest ranking official, arrived in Wuhan to inspect regulation efforts of the disease. His visit is seen as a move to prove the central government’s adequate involvement with this crisis. 

In further attempts to impose the travel bans, the Chinese government extended the Lunar New Year holiday by three days. The weeklong celebration started on Friday and was supposed to end this Thursday, but the spreading virus threw a wrench in many people’s travel and celebration plans. Now employees won’t have to return to work until Feb. 3.

International Evacuation Plans

Despite China’s imposed travel bans, other nations have devised plans to evacuate their citizens from high-risk areas and bring them home. 

The U.S. Department of State announced its plans to bring select consulate staff members and other American citizens from Wuhan to San Francisco on a flight on Jan. 28. 

“This capacity is extremely limited and if there is insufficient ability to transport everyone who expresses interest, priority will be given to individuals at greater risk from coronavirus,” the Department said.

France’s government is arranging similar plans to bring French nationals back from the Wuhan area via air travel. Once these passengers return, they will be required to spend a maximum of 14 days in quarantine.  

Japan also said they would be chartering at least one plane this week to bring citizens home from Wuhan.

See what others are saying: (New York Times) (CNN) (CBS)

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China Rushes to Build New Hospital as Coronavirus Spreads

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  • Chinese authorities announced plans to build a 1,000-bed hospital in Wuhan by Feb. 3 to treat patients of a deadly new virus that has killed at least 26 people. 
  • More than 800 cases of the never-before-seen strain of the coronavirus have been detected.
  • The majority of the cases are in China, though some have been found in other countries, including the United States. 
  • Officials hope the new hospital will help alleviate some of the pressure on China’s healthcare system, which has been overwhelmed in the wake of the outbreak.

Race to Build Hospital

In the wake of the new coronavirus outbreak that has killed at least 26 people, China announced plans on Friday to quickly build a 1,000-bed hospital to treat patients of the epidemic. 

The hospital is being constructed in Wuhan, where the deadly “2019-nCOV” virus originated and is scheduled to be completed by Feb. 3. Images and video from Chinese media show dozens of workers preparing the site. 

Wuhan authorities said the new hospital’s purpose is to “address the insufficiency of existing medical resources,” the Associated Press reported

China’s healthcare system has been strained by the outbreak. At least eight hospitals across Wuhan have called for protective medical gear donations, according to the Associated Press, citing notices online. Video footage has emerged showing health facilities packed with people desperate for help.  

“I am scared because this is a new virus and the figures are alarming,” an unnamed doctor told BBC. “The hospitals have been flooding with patients, there are thousands, I haven’t seen so many before.”

The expedited Wuhan hospital is reminiscent of another project that China undertook almost two decades ago. In 2003, when the nation was swept up by the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) virus that spread to 28 other countries and killed nearly 800 people, a hospital was built from scratch in Beijing in just under a week. 

The Wuhan structure is modeled off the Xiaotangshan SARS hospital in Beijing and is being made from prefabricated buildings that help with fast assembly.

What is the Coronavirus?

The outbreak causing all the panic is a novel coronavirus — a strain of the coronavirus that has never been seen before. According to the World Health Organization, coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that cause illnesses ranging from the common cold to more severe ailments. SARS is a member of this family.

Coronaviruses can be transmitted between people and animals. The novel coronavirus was suspected to have come from a seafood and live animal market in Wuhan, which has since been closed for disinfection. The new strain is particularly intimidating because it is not yet known how it affects people or how to treat it.   

At least 12 Chinese cities near the center of the outbreak have been placed on a travel lockdown to prevent further spreading of the virus, affecting roughly 35 million residents. The lockdown comes just ahead of one of China’s most important holidays, Lunar New Year, throwing a wrench in many people’s celebration plans. 

More than 800 cases of the virus have been detected and a few have been found in countries beyond China, including the United States. On Thursday, the World Health Organization said the new virus has not yet reached a level that makes it a global health emergency.

See what others are saying: (Wall Street Journal) (Guardian) (The Washington Post)

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Brexit Officially Becomes Law in the United Kingdom

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  • British Parliament passed a final Brexit withdrawal agreement on Wednesday.
  • The following day, Queen Elizabeth gave the bill her royal assent, a formality that turns a bill into law.
  • While the European Parliament is set to make the U.K.’s divorce from the European Union official next week, the U.K. still has a long journey ahead in laying out a new relationship with the EU and countries like the United States.

Brexit Becomes Law

After a bitter three and a half year struggle that resulted in the resignation of two prime ministers, protests, elections, and multiple delays, the United Kingdom has officially signed a Brexit withdrawal agreement. 

Queen Elizabeth gave her royal assent to the bill on Thursday, a formality that gave the agreement the rule of law. Her signature came after parliament passed the agreement Wednesday evening.

In December, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party gained an 80 seat majority in Parliament’s elected lower house, the House of Commons. The massive win was seen as a mandate that the United Kingdom wanted to divorce itself from the European Union, and Johnson’s victory gave him the ability to pass the withdrawal agreement through the Commons with ease in early January.

The bill was then sent to the non-elected upper house, the House of Lords. On Tuesday, the Lords passed the bill back to the Commons with several amendments attached. Notably, one of those amendments included a provision that would have protected the rights of refugee children to be reunited with their parents if their parents were in the U.K. post-Brexit.

On Wednesday, the Commons used its majority to reject those amendments and tossed the bill back to the Lords. The Lords, lacking a majority to pass the amendments, passed the bill to prevent the U.K. from missing its current Jan. 31 deadline. 

Before the U.K. officially leaves the EU, however, the EU’s parliament will also need to vote on a final approval of the withdrawal agreement. That vote is expected to happen Jan. 29, and like the Queen’s royal assent, this stage is also largely being viewed as a formality, with it easily expected to pass.

When it does, the U.K. will officially end its 40-year relationship with the EU. 

Reaction to Brexit’s Passage

Unlike the raucous and theatrical debate normally associated with Brexit, the withdrawal agreement’s final passage was largely by the numbers and met with little resistance. 

Thursday, when Deputy Speaker Nigel Evans announced in the Commons that the Queen had given her royal assent, only a handful of members of parliament either threw cheers or jeers. Likely, this is a consequence of December’s sweeping elections. 

However, that doesn’t mean MP’s and other lawmakers haven’t stifled their strong feelings for the agreement’s passage. 

Just after the royal assent announcement, Scottish MP Ian Blackford said the U.K. is facing a “constitutional crisis” because the legislatures in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland don’t support Brexit.

On Wednesday, member Alf Dubs—who had proposed the child refugee amendment—expressed his frustration on Twitter. 

“It is bitterly disappointing that after a victory in the Lords, the government have voted down my amendment in the Commons,” he said. “What could be more humane than asking that unaccompanied child refugees stranded in Europe be able to join relatives in this country?”

To note, one of the reasons Dubs is so passionate about the amendment is because he came to the U.K. as a child to escape Nazi persecution shortly before the start of the Second World War.

On the other hand, on Wednesday, after Parliament passed the withdrawal agreement, Johnson said in a statement, “At times it felt like we would never cross the Brexit finish line, but we’ve done it.”

“Now we can put the rancour and division of the past three years behind us and focus on delivering a bright, exciting future – with better hospitals and schools, safer streets and opportunity spread to every corner of our country,” he added.

What Happens Once the Divorce Becomes Official?

Following next week’s expected divorce, the U.K. will begin an 11-month transition period with the EU that is currently scheduled to end on January 1, 2021.

During that time, it will continue to follow most of the EU’s rules, but it won’t actually have any decision-making power in the EU.

The U.K. and the EU will also continue to hash out details of what their relationship will look like after that transition period. For example, that includes things like an ambitious free-trade deal, agriculture, and security.

As for negotiations, those are expected to start either sometime next month or in early March, but like how Brexit saw multiple extensions, a lot of EU officials believe this transition period will also need to be extended. Many believe 11 months is too short of a time frame to completely work out all of the details. Johnson, however, has refused to agree to any extensions.

At the same time, Johnson has also been vocal about getting a free-trade deal with the U.S. While in Davos at the World Economic Forum, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin also indicated the U.S.’s desire for a trade deal, saying, “It’s an absolute priority of President Trump and we expect to complete that within this year.”

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross also said that a trade deal shouldn’t be too hard because the U.S. and the U.K. have similar economies.

But the U.S. and U.K. are also currently in a disagreement over a so-called “tech tax.” That riff stims from the U.K.’s plan to introduce a digital services tax on tech companies like Facebook and Google. Mnuchin then threatened to retaliate by potentially slapping a tariff on U.K. car exports.

See what others are saying: (The Guardian) (The Independent) (Business Insider)

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